Archive for the ‘Servants’ Category

Inquiring readers: The two summers before Jane Austen’s death, cold and wet weather plagued Great Britain due to a volcanic eruption in 1815 half a world away. This article discusses the reasons for the unseasonably cold weather and its effects on the world’s population, concentrating on those who lived in Great Britain. 

Tambora-Eruption_pg14_2Tambora’s Eruption

On April 10, 1815, a volcanic eruption of Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa became the worst volcanic event in the last 1,000 years. According to an article published by National Geographic, this event was a “hundred times more powerful than the 1981 Mount St. Helens blast.” It is estimated that the pyroclastic flow from the eruption killed from 10,000 to 90,000 people initially. These flows were similar to the fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter that initially killed thousands of citizens in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Tambora’s catastrophic event “injected about 100 megatons of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere,” resulting in a deadly atmospheric haze that traveled slowly around the globe. (National Geographic.)

That haze caused spectacularly colorful sunsets, influencing painters in Europe, Great Britain, and the U.S. (indeed the world over) to capture them on canvases.


Caspar David Friedrich Zwei Männer am Meer (Two Men by the Sea), 1817

The gaseous haze-inducing particles reflected only a fraction of sunlight back into the atmosphere, dimming the sun’s effects, resulting in a cooling of the world’s temperature by approximately half a degree Celsius. This change may seem fractional, but it affected the world’s climate for three years — 1815, 1816, and 1817 (the year of Austen’s death).

The effects of the eruption were devastating the world over and caused winter weather to linger into the summer months:

“In the U.S., frosts and cold weather ravaged the New England growing season, prompting cries of a “year without a summer” and a migration into western states. Plunging temperatures broke the monsoon cycle in Asia, sending India into famine and triggering a cholera epidemic of unprecedented severity.”

“Summer cold snaps and crippling rains also destroyed Chinese farmers’ rice paddies, driving many to starvation, infanticide, and even child slavery” – National Geographic

Loss of crops in the ensuing growing seasons, starved millions more. English scientist Luke Howard (1772-1864) recorded in 1816:

“Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.”

Farmer’s Magazine (1816) spoke of water overflowing river banks and carrying away cattle in the UK. The severest conditions were recorded in early February, where hard frosts and deep snow, combined with a “depressed agricultural sector” reduced formerly industrious and economically sound families to the lowest state of poverty.

Before Tambora’s eruption, England had already experienced years of cooling, harvest failure, and famine (1813-1814). The after effects of Tambora made this trend worse, resulting in incessant rainfall, cool temperatures, and bitter winds, but these shifts in climate were not the only surprises in store for the populace. In 1815, Edmund Woolterton wrote from Denton, Norfolk: “the drought has been so severe the park is short of feed …” Violent winds, more floods, drifts of snow that made roads impassable, and hard frosts greeted autumn and winter…“ The incessant spring downpours prevented crop growth and caused more widespread flooding.

Farmer’s Magazine 17 (1816) wrote of “considerable quantities of soil, filling upsoughs and ditches; and some Sheep have been lost.” Turnips and other food for livestock were severely damaged and provided scant fodder for the starving animals. In June the wheat crops failed because of the cold and rain. Hot days in the Midlands were replaced by rain events, one of which in July lasted for 6-8 weeks. Its length prevented farmers from cutting grass in pastures, which caused more hardship for them and their cattle.

Jane Austen commented about the weather in a letter to her niece Anna on June 23, 1816:

“Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been.”

While Austen’s remark seemed offhand, poverty and starvation for the poor and working classes became grim:

“The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that in Barnet on Thursday [in July 1816], a Gentleman, happening to go into the market-place, found about 140 poor people literally starving; he ordered them all to be supplied with half a quartern loaf, and to come back next morning for another. On Friday the number that applied for relief was 338, when they got the same bounty. On Saturday morning those (all strangers) who applied were 776, who each received one-third of a quartern loaf, and from the parish a quarter of a pound of cheese each …”

Due to the weather, workers had difficulty finding employment. Understanding their dire situation, money was raised so that the London Association could purchase twenty tons of red herrings. Lord Middleton donated hundreds of tons of coal, and various parishes established soup kitchens and distributed oatmeal to feed the hungry. In addition, night policing was established to address an increase in crime, such as looting.

During the spring of 1817 – the last spring in Jane Austen’s life – the weather was cold and sunless and dry. In June, the month before her death, the UK experienced a heat wave, but then the rains began again toward the end of July. They continued through September and resulted in another failed harvest. The resulting famine led to social protest and violence.

FrankensteinTwo interesting developments resulted from Tambora’s destruction. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley rented a house near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. She was only 19 years old at this time. Rainy weather kept the couple and their friends inside their houses, for, as she wrote “it proved a wet, ungenial summer … and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.” One of the friends who rented lodging nearby was Lord Byron. Bored, they competed to write a ghost story and the result was Mary’s Frankenstein, a classic that endures to this day. For the full story of this book’s inception, click on this link to History.com.

The other development was the invention of the early form of the bicycle. The reason for this method of transportation was the astronomical cost of feeding horses. Karl Drais set out to invent a way of getting around without horses or beasts of burden. Made of wood, this contraption came without a brake or pedals, but it could achieve a speed of 10 miles per hour.

Dandy's perambulationsa

Forward momentum was powered by feet. Without the protection of copyright laws, Drais did not make a fortune from his invention, which was initially called the laufmaschine. The Dandy’s Perambulations, a delightful satire written in 1819 and illustrated by Robert Cruikshank, shows the misadventures of two gentlemen out for a ride on their ‘dandy horses.’ Find this 40-page booklet digitized at the Internet Archive.

Dandy's perambulations

A possible third result of Tambora might have been an increase of chilblains among the populace, a painful condition caused by cold and wet conditions. This had been a common symptom among workers and servants who labored outdoors or in drafty kitchens. My guesses are pure speculation, for I’m no scientist or epidemiologist, but I wonder if 3-4 years of prolonged cold and wet weather after Tambora’s eruption might have resulted with chilblains spreading beyond the servant class and working poor.

Housemaids, scullery maids, and laundry maids from that era were particularly susceptible to this affliction due to their unceasing household chores. Exposure to cold, especially in winter, affected fingers, toes, and ears. The treatment required rest, keeping one’s body warm, and wearing dry woolen or cotton socks. No servant, or working class person who toiled outdoors for that matter, had the luxury to strictly follow most of those steps towards a cure. They could attempt to resist scratching their skin and apply witch hazel to reduce the inflammation, but few could rest for days in a dry and warm environment to recover.

In Longbourne, author Jo Baker introduces the reader to Sarah and Holly, two young fictional housemaids who served the Bennet family under their housekeeper Mrs Hill. They performed the drudgery work – scrubbing pots and pans, washing laundry by hand with harsh soaps, and hauling buckets of cold water to scrub floors and kitchen surfaces. Their hands and often their feet were plagued by chilblains that reddened the skin and felt as if their skin was on fire. In the novel, after the militia showed up in Meryton, Sarah was expected to act as the lady’s maid to all five Bennet girls, helping them to get ready for the increase in social events. This meant aggravating the chilblains on her hands, causing more soreness and pain as she spot-cleaned gowns, ironed them, and then dressed the girls’ hair.

Plunging hands repeatedly in cold water, as laundry maids and scullery maids did, irritated their skin, causing itching, red patches, swelling and blistering. This condition also occurred on the feet of people and farmers who walked in rain or wet fields with wet socks and shoes.

winter going north

Mail coaches and stagecoaches placed ‘cheap seat’ passengers on top or outside, leaving them exposed to the elements in rain and snow. Prolonged rains as described in first-hand accounts and cold weather throughout the summer and early fall must have increased the incidences of chilblains in this population. Several decades after Jane Austen’s death, Charlotte Brontë described the winter conditions for the orphaned girls in Lowood school:

“Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet . . .” — Jane Eyre

I searched Austen’s letters in the last years of her life from 1815 to 1817 (Le Faye), but could find only the quote I previously mentioned. It is sad to think that she experienced her final winter, spring, and early summer in such cold and miserable weather. Her hope about her health from autumn 1816 to early January 1817 shone through her surviving letters, and so her optimism about her future must be our consolation.

Sources and articles

Situating 1816, the ‘year without summer’, in the UK, August 2016, Geographical Journal 182(4), Authors: Veale, Lucy and Endfield Georgina. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/306042378_Situating_1816_the_’year_without_summer’_in_the_UK

Greshko, Michael (2016) 201 Years Ago, This Volcano Caused a Climate Catastrophe: Indonesia’s Tambora eruption brought on a deadly spate of cooling—presaging the costs that come with sudden changes to climate. National Geographic. 

Blakemore, Erin, ‘Frankenstein’ Was Born During a Ghastly Vacation, History.com, March 12, 2019 (Original, March 9, 2018). Frankenstein Was Born During a Ghastly Vacation:

The Old Farmer’s Almanac: The Year Without a Summer, January 16, 2022.


Paintings in the Year Without a Summer, Zachary Hubbard, Philologia

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stage-coach and Mail in Days of Yore,

Volume 2 (of 2), by Charles G. Harper

Laundry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laundry#/media/File:Laundry_1806.PNG 

Maid of all work https://janeaustensworld.com/2009/06/14/regency-servants-maid-of-all-work/

Winter going north https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58668/58668-h/58668-h.htm#ip_165

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We’ve heard the term, “Behind the green baize doors”, but what exactly does it mean? You hear this reference most often in regard to servants and in old books.

Baize was a sturdy green cloth attached to a swing door.  The insulating fabric prevented noises from disturbing the individuals on either side:

The ‘Green Baize Door’ was the dividing line between the two domains, and trespassing beyond meant going into foreign territory. The ‘Green Baize Door’ was a feature of almost every substantial house. It was generally an ordinary framed door onto which was tacked a green baize cloth, usually with brass tacks. It was the universal signal of the dividing line between the two halves of the house.The Bull children would not be tolerated by the servants in the domestic part of the house unless they were working under supervision. This was like walking into somebody else’s house. The servants would normally use a different route to get to the various parts of the house, and would aim to be seen as little as possible. This was not because they were considered beneath notice: on the contrary, it was so that they could do their work uninterrupted by the requirement to exchange civilities. Houses evolved so that domestic staff could go about their task without interruption, not to ensure the privacy of the residents. They had none. –Borley Rectory and the Green-Baize DoorDomestic life at Borley Rectory, by Andrew Clarke copyright 2002

Image @Chest of Books

The brass-headed tacks holding the cloth down could sometimes be arranged in a decorative design. The cloth not only deadened sound but also absorbed kitchen odors. Green baize doors became popular during the mid-Eighteenth century, so Jane Austen must have been aware of the practice, which was more and more used as the 19th century progressed. During Victorian times the practice of sound proofing doors with baize was quite common. The cloth could also be used to insulate nursery room doors, bedroom doors, and doors leading to studies or any place where sound needed to be muffled.

It was a time when housemaids were taught to turn their face to the wall if they should pass their employer on the stairs. For whose protection? one wonders. The era of Squire Allworthy and Sir Roger de Coverley had long passed, when relations between master and man were more informal. – The green baize door: social identity in Wodehouse; Part two – Allan Ramsay 

Early 19th century mahogany desk with baize lining**

Baize (or bayes), also known as a bocking flannel,  was a coarse wool or cotton material, which had a felt-like texture:

“In Europe, baize was used mainly for case, cabinet and closet linings, as well as furniture coverings. Clothing baize was used for monk and nun habits as well as soldier’s uniforms. In the North American Native market, the term baize frequently alludes to inexpensive coarse broadcloth. – Wool Trade Cloth 

Baize dates back to the 16th century, 1525 to be precise. A mid-17th century English ditty about the history of ale and beer brewing, mentions “bays”:

Hops, heresies, bays, and beer;
Came into England all in one year.

“Heresies refers to the Protestant Reformation, while bays is the Elizabethan spelling for baize. – Good English Ale 

Baize scrap from the Titanic. Image @Online Titanic Museum*

Baize was used in a number of ways, including as a protective cover for gaming tables, for the nap of the cloth increased friction, preventing cards from sliding and slowing billiard or snooker balls.  The cloth is available in a variety of naps. Roman Catholic churches used red or green baize for altar cloth protectors, and the cloth was used in museum cases and desks as well.

St. Jerome in his study

As previously mentioned, baize was also used for clothing.

“I would recommend to you the Green Baize Gown, and if that will not answer, You recollect the Bear Skin.” Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 3 December 1788

The site for Knox Family Clothing mentioned mid-18th century receipts for baize and bayes,  as well as rattinet, armozeen, dowles, buff battinet, flannel, linen, silk, and velvet.

In Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving, published in 1876, Mary Foote Henderson recommends:

“Put a thick baize under the table-cloth. This is quite indispensable. It prevents noise, and the finest and handsomest table – linen looks comparatively thin and sleazy on a bare table.”  

The Staircase Hall at Uppark. The red baize door leads to the servants' quarters. ©NTPL/Geoffrey Frosh

Red baize was also used as insulating material, as the decorative door at Uppark (image above) indicated. (National Treasure Hunt, National Trust Collections) In this advertisement for an 1808 Georgian house for sale, a red baize door to the inner lobby is featured. The red baize servant door providing access to the inner lobby and the kitchen, rear reception and breakfast room. 1808 house

More on the topic:

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This Sunday, PBS will air on most stations an hour presentation of  Secrets of the Manor House, a documentary narrated by Samuel West, that explains how society was transformed in the years leading up to World War One. Expert historians, such as Lawrence James and Dr. Elisabeth Kehoe, discuss what life was like in these houses, explain the hierarchy of the British establishment, and provide historical and social context for viewers. For American viewers of Downton Abbey, this special couldn’t have come at a better time.

The British manor house represented a world of privilege, grace, dignity and power.

For their services for the King in war, soldiers were awarded lands and titles. The aristocracy rose from a warrior class.

This world was inhabited by an elite class of people who were descended from a line of professional fighting men, whose titles and land were bestowed on them by a grateful king.

Manderston House, Berwickshire.

For over a thousand years, aristocrats viewed themselves as a race apart, their power and wealth predicated on titles, landed wealth, and political standing.

Huge tracts of lands with fields, villages, laborers' cottages, and forests surrounded country estates.

Vast landed estates were their domain, where a strict hierarchy of class was followed above stairs as well as below it. In 1912, 1 ½ million servants tended to the needs of their masters. As many as 100 would be employed as butler, housekeeper, house maids, kitchen maids, footmen, valets, cooks, grooms, chauffeurs, forestry men, and agricultural workers. Tradition kept everyone in line, and deference and obedience to your betters were expected (and given).

22 staff were required to run Manderston House, which employed 100 servants, many of whom worked in the gardens, fields, and forests.

As a new century began, the divide between rich and poor was tremendous. While the rich threw more extravagant parties and lived lavish lives, the poor were doomed to live lives of servitude and hard work.

Lord Palmer pulls on a false bookcase to open a passage to the next room.

Manderston House in Berwickshire represents the excesses of its time. The great house consists of 109 rooms, and employed 98 servants just before the outbreak of World War One. Twenty two servants worked inside the house to tend to Lord Palmer and his family. Every room inside the house interconnected.

The curtains in the ballroom of Manderston House look as fresh as the year they were made in 1904.

The curtains and drapes, woven with gold and silver thread, were made in Paris in 1904 and cost the equivalent of 1.5 million dollars. Manderston House itself was renovated at the turn of the century for 20 million dollars in today’s money. This was during an era when scullery maids earned the equivalent of $50 per year.

Once can clearly see the differences in bell sizes in this photo.

The servant hall boasted 56 bells, each of a different size that produced a unique ring tone. Servants were expected to memorize the sound for the areas that were under their responsibility.

Scullery maids were placed at the bottom of the servant hierarchy. They rose before dawn to start the kitchen fires and put water on to boil. Their job was to scrub the pots, pans and dishes, and floors, and even wait on other servants.

Life was not a bed of roses for the working class and the gulf between the rich and poor could not have been wider than during the turn of the 21st century.

Thoroughbred horses lived better than the working classes.

While the servants slept in the attic or basement, thoroughbred horses were housed in expensively designed stable blocks. As many as 16 grooms worked in the stables, for no expense was spared in tending to their needs.

The stables at Manderston House required 16 grooms to feed, care for, and exercise the horses.

As men and women worked long hours, as much as 17-18 hours per day, the rich during the Edwardian era lived extravagant, indulgent lives of relaxation and pleasure, attending endless rounds of balls, shooting parties, race meetings, and dinner parties.

Up to the moment that war was declared, the upper classes lived as if their privileged lives would never change.

The Edwardian era marked the last great gasp of manor house living with its opportunities of providing endless pleasure. For the working class and poor, the inequities within the system became more and more apparent. The landed rich possessed over one half of the land. Their power was rooted in owning land, for people who lived on the land paid rent. The landed gentry also received income from investments,  rich mineral deposits on their land, timber, vegetables grown in their fields, and animals shipped to market.

The lord of the manor and his steward can be seen walking among the farm laborers, many of whom were women.

The need to keep country estates intact and perpetuate a family’s power was so important that the eldest son inherited everything – the estate, title, all the houses, jewels, furnishings, and art. The laws of primogeniture ensured that country estates would not be whittled away over succeeding generations. In order to consolidate power, everything (or as much as possible) was preserved. Entailment, a law that went back to the 13th century, ensured that portions of an estate could not be sold off.

The Lord Mayor of London was seated at the center of the table next to the Countesses of Stamford and Lichfield.

The system was rigged to favor the rich. Only men who owned land could vote, and hereditary peers were automatically given a seat in the House of Lords. By inviting powerful guests to their country estates, they could lobby for their special interests across a dinner table, at a shoot, or at a men’s club.

Thoroughbred horses were valued for their breeding and valor, traits that aristocrats identified with.

The Industrial Revolution brought about changes in agricultural practices and inventions that presaged the decline of aristocratic wealth. Agricultural revenues, the basis on which landed wealth in the UK was founded, were in decline. Due to better transportation and refrigeration, grain transported from Australia and the U.S. became cheaper to purchase. Individuals were able to build wealth in other ways – as bankers and financiers. While the landed gentry could still tap resources from their lands and expand into the colonies, the empire too began to crumble with the rise of nationalism and nation states.

The servant hierarchy echoed the distinctions of class upstairs. The chef worked at the end of the table on the left, while the lowest ranking kitchen maids chopped vegetables at the far right. The kitchen staff worked 17 hours a day and rarely left the kitchen.

Contrasted with the opulent life above stairs was an endless life of drudgery below stairs. On a large estate that entertained visitors, over 100 meals were prepared daily. Servants rose at dawn and had to stay up until the last guest went to bed. Kitchen maids, who made the equivalent of 28 dollars per year, rarely strayed outside the kitchen.

Steep back stairs that servants used. Out of sight/out of mind.

One bath required 45 gallons of water, which had to be hauled by hand up steep, narrow stairs. At times, a dozen guests might take baths on the same day. House maids worked quietly and unseen all over the manor house. The were expected to move from room to room using their own staircases and corridors. Underground tunnels allowed servants to move unseen crossing courtyards.

Manderston House's current butler shows the servant's hall

Maids and footmen lived in their own quarters in the attic or basement. Men were separated from the women and were expected to use different stairs. Discipline was strict. Servants could be dismissed without notice for the most minor infraction.

Footmen tended to be young, tall, and good looking.

Footmen, whose livery cost more than their yearly salary, were status symbols. Chosen for their height and looks, they were the only servants allowed to assist the butler at dinner table. These men were the only servants allowed upstairs.

Green baize doors separated the servants quarters from the master's domain.

Green baize doors were special doors that marked the end of the servants quarters and hid the smells of cooking and noises of the servants from the family.

The Jerome sisters were (l to r) Jennie, Clara, and Leonie.

As revenues from agriculture dwindled, the upper classes searched for a new infusion of capital.This they found in the American heiress, whose fathers had built up their wealth from trade and transportation. Free from the laws of primogeniture, these wealthy capitalists distributed their wealth among their children, sharing it equally among sons and daughters. The ‘Buccaneers,’ as early American heiresses were called, infused the British estates with wealth. ‘Cash for titles’ brought 60 million dollars into the British upper class system via 100 transatlantic marriages.

Working class family

Transatlantic passages worked both ways, even as American heiresses crossed over to the U.K.,  millions of British workers emigrated to America looking for a better life. The sinking of the Titanic, just two years before the outbreak of World War One, underscored the pervasive issue of class.

Most likely this lifeboat from the Titanic was filled with upper class women and children. Only 1 in 3 people survived.

The different social strata were housed according to rank, and it was hard to ignore that a large percentage of first class women and children survived, while the majority of third and second class passengers died.

Labor strikes became common all over the world, including the U.K.

Society changed as the working class became more assertive and went on strikes. The Suffragette movement gained momentum. Prime Minister David Lloyd George was a proponent of reform, even as the aristocracy tried to carry on as before.

Lloyd George campaigned for progressive causes.

Inventions revolutionized the work place. Electricity, telephones, the type writer, and other labor-saving devices threatened jobs in service. A big house could be run with fewer staff, and by the 1920s a manor house that required 100 servants needed only 30-40.

Change is ever present. The last typewriter factory shut its doors in April, 2011.

Women who would otherwise have gone into service were lured into secretarial jobs, which had been revolutionized by the telephone and typewriter.

Many of the aristocratic young men in this photo would not return from war.

The manor house set enjoyed one last season in the summer of 1914, just before war began. Many of the young men who attended those parties would not return from France. Few expected that this war would last for six months, much less four years. Officers lost their lives by a greater percentage than ordinary soldiers, and the casualty lists were filled with the names of aristocratic men and the upper class.

Over 35 million soldiers and civilians died in World War 1

Common soldiers who had died by the millions had been unable to vote. Such inequities did not go unnoticed. Social discontent, noticeable before the war, resulted in reform – the many changes ushered in modern Britain.

As the 20th century progressed, owners found it increasingly hard to maintain their manor houses. According to Lost Heritage, over 1,800 have been lost.

Watch Secrets of the Manor HouseJanuary 22 on PBS. All images from Secrets of the Manor House.

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Gentle readers, this poem in a mid-19th century children’s family circle book perfectly describes the long and arduous day of an ordinary family cook.

The Discontented Cook. Image @Forrester's pictorial miscellany for the family circle edited by Mark Forrester, 1855

Oh, who would wish to be a cook,
To live in such a broil!

With all one’s pains, to cook one’s brains,
And lead a Life of toil?

“Tis, Stir the pudding, Peggy,
And give those ducks a turn;

Be quick, be quick, you lazy jade!
Else one or both will burn.

An hour before the rising sun
I’m forced to leave my bed,

To make the fires, and fry the cakes,

And get the table spread.
‘Tis, Stir the pudding, Peggy,

And give those ducks a turn;
Be quick, be quick, you lazy jade!

Else one or both will burn.

The breakfast’s scarely over,

And all things set to rights,
Before the savory haunch, or fowl,

My skill and care invites.
‘T is, Stir the pudding, Peggy,

And give those ducks a turn;
Be quick, be quick, you lazy jade!

Else one or both will burn.

And here I stand before the fire,

And turn them round and round;
And keep the kettle boiling —

I hate their very sound!
‘T is, Stir the pudding, Peggy,

And give those ducks a turn;
Be quick, be quick, you lazy jade!

Else one or both will burn.

And long before the day is spent,

I ‘m all in such a toast,
You scarce could tell which’s done the most

Myself, or what I roast!
‘Tis, Stir the pudding, Peggy,

And give those ducks a turn;
Be quick, be quick, you lazy jade’.

Else one or both will burn.

From Forrester’s Pictorial Miscellany for the Family Circle, 1855

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Upstairs Dowstairs returns

Coming to PBS this Sunday, April 10th,  is Upstairs Downstairs, the newly minted series. Except for Rose, the characters have completely changed, but the nature of the program, following the family and the servants who cater to them, has not.

165 Eaton Place

It is 1936, and only six years have passed by since the Bellamys last lived at 165 Eaton Place. The townhouse is an abandoned shell when Lady Agnes Holland (Keely Hawes) and her diplomat husband, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), arrive from abroad to renovate it as their first home in England.

Keely Hawes as Lady Holland looks towards a new future

Rose (Jean Marsh), the only holdover from the original series, has left service to care for a sick aunt and is now self-employed, finding work for other domestics. A frugal Lady Holland solicits her to fill her house with servants. This means she does not mind employing help with little experience and who need training.

Young Johnny (Nico Mirallegro) needs training

Heidi Thomas, who also wrote the script for Cranford, delivered a crisp, intelligent, and witty script that draws viewers in right away, preserving the elements that drew us to the original show. This series (which has been renewed for a second season) stacks up well against its parent very well indeed. (Although my heart will always be with Hudson, the first butler.)

Jean Marsh as Rose

Thirty years or so ago, Upstairs, Downstairs was a television sensation, and rightly so. The series had been conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, who was working on another project when filming began, and so she did not play a maid alongside her friend, Jean. Thankfully so, for Ms. Atkins has returned as Maude, Lady Holland a character who lights up the screen as delightfully as Maggie Smith’s dowager Countess  in Downton Abbey.

Eileen Atkins as Lady Maud Holland

In this year of The King’s Speech, it is interesting to note that Wallis Simpson makes an appearance in the first episode and that the cast listens to Edward’s first radio speech as king. The story of the king and his abdication has long legs this season (he and Wallis were also featured in Any Human Heart, also shown on PBS)

Although invited to the party, Wallis Simpson's (Emma Clifford) appearance is not welcome.

Comparisons of Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey are inevitable, but this is unfair. After all, Upstairs, Downstairs arrived on the scene decades earlier and provided the template for all the master/servant stories that followed. Viewers will not be disappointed with the renewal of a most beloved series. I certainly wasn’t.

Image @Radio Times

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